18 Mar Collection In Action – O
An alphabetical series of short driving impressions of some of the museum’s car collection. This month we go double-O – no, not 007 – with a surprisingly appealing Opel Olympia.
Every now and again a manufacturer introduces a model that is a milestone in its progress, forming part of the company DNA not always recognised at the time but becoming apparent only later. Take the Opel Olympia for instance.
In 1935 Opel introduced the first-generation Olympia, named in anticipation of the 1936 Olympic Games to be held in Berlin. It was a ground-breaker: Germany’s first mass-produced car with an all-steel unitary body. Manufacture at the Rüsselsheim site began later in the year and necessitated some new production methods, including spot welding, that were patented by Opel. Using advanced types of steel, the weight-saving monocoque construction resulted in the car being some 180 kg lighter than its predecessor.
Launched at the 1935 Berlin Motor Show, the compact, family-sized car – which was available in two body styles, an LZ two-door saloon and a CL two-door cabriolet – was powered by a 1,3-litre four-cylinder side-valve engine that produced 18 kW. Transmission was a three-speed manual and the car had a top speed of 95 km/h. Suspension was independent up front with a live axle supported on semi-elliptic leaf springs at the rear. Production lasted until 1937 by which time a four-speed ’box had become available. A total of 81 661 units were produced.
The second-generation Olympia – designated OL38 – appeared in 1937 and was manufactured during both pre- and post war periods. Completely redesigned, it was a bigger car all round than the outgoing model and weighed around 920 kg. An LV four-door saloon was added to the model line-up. The motor was all-new too, a 1 488 cm3 overhead-valve inline-four that developed 34 kW at 4 000 r/min and 97 N.m of torque at, unusually, the same revs. Compression ratio was a remarkably low 6,6:1. Opel reverted to a three-speed gearbox and top speed was raised to 112 km/h. The underpinnings, with drum brakes all round, were essentially a carryover.
Production was halted during the war and only resumed in late 1947 with just the two-door saloon, and by the end of 1949 a total of 25 952 had been produced. In 1950 the body was facelifted and the saloon was joined by a two-door cabriolet once more and, for the first time, a two-door station wagon.
FMM’s 1950 two-door sedan was built at GM’s plant in Port Elizabeth and is thought to be one of only two still in the country. This car is in remarkably good condition, its glistening green paintwork and bold, upright stance lending it a period elegance that is all the more becoming because of its rarity. A bold grille, set-back and faired-in headlamps, bonnet-side louvres, stylish strips of chrome trim and white-wall tyres are just some of the body’s stylish features. Admittedly, the truncated tail with its exposed spare wheel does look a little at odds with the Olympia’s otherwise flattering looks, but from any angle it catches the eye.
Inside it is no less appealing. The front seat has leather-upholstered cushions and squabs on an otherwise minimalist framework that offers adjustment from barely enough to practically nil. The split backrest allows entry to the rear but the limited rearwards movement does provide some reasonable legroom for rear-seat passengers. The rear seat backrest has to be pulled forward to access the boot as there is no exterior opening. For the driver, the painted metal dashboard houses two big dials for speed and fuel/oil pressure, trendy white knobs, warning lights for amps and ‘winkers’ and the ignition switch.
Depressing a button in the passenger side footwell brings the engine into life. Engage first with the column-shifter, release the stout handbrake under the dash to the right and away we go. The engine is surprisingly willing given its modest power output, while the gearbox proves to be an absolute delight, with second an elastic ‘do anything’ ratio from walking pace up to near cruising speed. The shifter moves with surprising precision, helped by a comfortable clutch action.
With freshly overhauled brakes, a hard shove on the middle pedal brought about reassuring stopping power. Tired dampers helped provide a slightly floaty ride while the big, thin-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel required only modest muscular input at slow turning speeds. Otherwise, cruising along, the Olympia surprised with its quiet, stable gait, excellent view out – and even a bit of bling with its chromed pointed bonnet mascot pointing the way ahead.
Around 160 000 OL38 Olympias were sold before it was replaced by the more modern Opel Olympia Rekord in 1953. The Olympia name was used in 1967-1970 for a luxury version of the Opel Kadett, but it was the first- and second-generation models that had the most impact, especially as the original set a new German motor industry standard. The Olympia’s popularity and reputation did much to help Opel re-establish itself after the war, and it stands as something of an unsung hero in Opel’s history. MM